O Superman


By Leonard Doyle

TO everything there is a season. Just as immigration reform is back on the agenda in the US, along comes the new Superman blockbuster “Man of Steel,” where the underlying theme is that of the immigrant experience.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this movie frames the experience of migration in the most positive way possible and serves to remind how much migrants contribute, both to their adopted societies and countries of origin.

For those who have forgotten or weren't paying sufficient attention during the last Superman movie, it turns out that Clark Kent aka Superman, who has just turned 75 is America’s ultimate undocumented immigrant. Much more than that, he is cast as the citizen protector of planet Earth. Sent away from Krypton by his father for his own safety, his spacecraft crash-landed onto a Kansas farmer’s field. That’s where he was adopted and brought up with Mid-Western values. As the story develops Superman becomes the ultimate caped hero as he walks, leaps and flies through the skies protecting people from evil people. 

To quote one of the most celebrated academic essays (see below) on Superman: "his powers--strength, mobility, x-ray vision and the like –are the comic-book equivalents of ethnic characteristics, and they protect and preserve the vitality of the foster community in which he lives in the same way that immigrant ethnicity has sustained American culture linguistically, artistically, economically, politically, and spiritually. The myth of Superman asserts with total confidence and a childlike innocence the value of the immigrant in American culture."

Firmly embedded in mainstream American culture, Superman even makes an appearance in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) with an installation of the  1981 song “O Superman” by experimental performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson.

Superman as immigrant is a leitmotif of the media coverage as in this piece and video clip from the New York Times:

"It’s a story that begins with the launching of the spaceship and continues through a child’s pained attempts to assimilate and a young man’s sense of not belonging. In his excellent 1987 essay “What Makes Superman So Darned American,” Gary D. Engle wrote that “Superman raises the American immigrant experience to the level of religious myth.” 

Here's a longer extract from the same 26-year old academic essay on Superman:

"It is impossible to imagine Superman being as popular as he is and speaking as deeply to the American character were he not an immigrant and an orphan. Immigration, of course, is the overwhelming fact in American history. Except for the Indians, all Americans have an immediate sense of their origins elsewhere. No nation on Earth has so deeply embedded in its social consciousness the imagery of passage from one social identity to another: the Mayflower of the New England separatists, the slave ships from Africa and the subsequent underground railroads toward freedom in the North, the sailing ships and steamers running shuttles across two oceans in the nineteenth century, the freedom airlifts in the twentieth. Somehow the picture just isn't complete without Superman's rocket ship."

Using the slogan “ Superman is an Immigrant ” a new organization has been formed seeking to influence US views on immigration: "Born on Krypton, he came to this country with the promise of Hope - the symbol he bears on his chest. Many of our families also have a history of immigration. We share Superman’s hope and we continue his fight for truth, justice and the American Way.""  

The Warner Bros movie was rollout over the weekend ranked #1 everywhere on the globe and pulled in a staggering $196.7 million in its first 4 days showing in 24 markets with more to come in the summer weekends ahead.

Update: A reader (see comments below) remind that its all very evocative of a 2010 Foreign Policy Magazine photo essay entitled "The Magnificent Migrants" which showed Latino migrants to the US as the caped superheroes of American society for their "contribution and selflesness towards their families and communities."

Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM